From the Balkans to the Big City: The History of Bosnian Muslims Immigrating to Chicago, forming the Džemijatul Hajrija, and spreading Islam throughout the United States

Hana Dedić


Suburban Paper

As a Bosnian Muslim from Chicago myself, my initial goal was to do more research about how and why my people came to Chicago and established communities. As I was researching, I realized that rather than establishing neighborhoods that were dominated by Bosnian Muslims, organizations were attracting more Bosnians to Chicago and they began to settle in large groups during certain phases. Therefore, I directed my research towards which specific organizations were attracting Bosnian Muslims, and what impact they were having in United States society as a whole. I decided to focus on the Džemijatul Hajrija because I found it to have the most significant impact on the modern world. The communication that took place between Bosnian Muslims, both in their homeland and in America resulted in the spreading of Islam and their organizations.

I began my research by going through Chicago Tribune archives and the Gale databases to gather a general overview of the different stages of Bosnian immigration. Eventually I found A Centennial of Bosnians in America, by Senad Agic. I got in contact with him and he explained to me his personal experience with both the Bosnian American Cultural Association and the Islamic Cultural Center, and how they were both related to the Džemijatul Hajrija. His book was my main source of inspiration and specific information about the Džemijatul Hajrija.

I decided on writing a paper because I wanted something that allowed me to provide a lot of information and also allowed me to present an argument of why Bosnian immigration is so significant to the modern day United States. I rewrote and edited my essay hundreds of times over the course of a seven month period till it was a concise and accurate representation of the Bosnian Muslim legacy.

My argument is that the Džemijatul Hajrija and the immigration of Bosnian Muslims to the United States resulted in the spreading of Islam throughout the United States.

My topic is significant because it is the Bosnian Muslim who founded the first Sunni Mosque in Chicago, the established the first Muslim organizations in Illinois, and they contributed to the spreading of Islam as well as the assimulation of many Muslim immigrants.

Works Cited

Primary Sources

Agić, Senad. A Centennial of Bosnians in America. Bosnian American Cultural Association. This book gives 100 years of the history of Bosnians in America. It highlights all stages of immigration, where they settled, hardships they faced, and how they established communities and organizations. The author himself was a Bosnian immigrant and provides his testimony.

Interview. 19 Dec. 2020. Senad Agic is a religious leader and current imam of the Sabah Mosque in Franklin Park, Illinois. He is a Bosnian immigrant who first arrived on American soil in 1989 and was hired that same year to work for the Islamic Cultural Center in Chicago. He worked directly with the Bosnian American Cultural Association in the past and is the author of “A Centennial of Bosnians in America,” which had become one of my main primary sources. He also directed me to the book “Bosnian Immigrants,” by Aisa Purak, who is a fellow Bosnian immigrant and friend of his.

Brezic, Elvir. Telephone interview. 27 Jan. 2021. Elvir Brezic is the current consul of Bosnia and Herzegovina. He is an active member in the Bosnian Muslim community and works directly with many of its members to get many Bosnians their visas, passports, and citizenships.

Chicago Tribune. Chicago Tribune Historical Archive, /E8EA2617910C466EPQ/14?accountid=130759. This is a newspaper article from the Chicago Tribune, which highlights how Balkan refugees in 2003 were attempting to find lost relatives by DNA. This shows how due to dangerous political situations in the Balkans, people were immigrating to Chicago and attempting to find and bring family members to Chicago as well. “

Full TextNewspapers Leaving nightmares behind With little but the clothes on their backs and a few helping hands, Bosnian refugee family starts over in Chicago.” Chicago Tribune. Chicago Tribune Historical Archive, /2CADF94078834D23PQ/20?accountid=130759. Accessed 4 Feb. 2021. This newspaper highlights how Bosnian refugees were settling into the Northern and Western parts of Chicago in 1993.

Purak, Aisa. Bosnian Immigrants. This book provides interviews and personal narratives of Bosnian Immigrants as well as social issues which arose in the Balkans, such as rape, ethnic cleansing, and poverty.

Secondary Sources

Alter, Peter T. “Mexicans and serbs in Southeast Chicago: Racial group formation during the twentieth century.” ProQuest, Mexicans and serbs in Southeast Chicago: Racial group formation during the twentieth century. Accessed 6 Dec. 2020. This article speaks a lot about how Serbs were subject to discrimination when they moved to Chicago because of religious differences. It also talks about how Serbian neighborhoods and churches were founded in Chicago around the 1930s.

“Balkan Wars.” Gale in Context: World History, Type=RESULT_LIST&searchResultsType=MultiTab&hitCount=68&searchType=BasicS earchForm¤tPosition=1&docId=GALE%7CAFPECC755911439&docType=Event +overview&sort=Relevance&contentSegment=ZXAG-MOD1&prodId=WHIC&pageNu m=1&contentSet=GALE%7CAFPECC755911439&searchId=R5&userGroupName=sko k85085&inPS=true. Accessed 4 Feb. 2021. This article explains how the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina by the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1908 eventually led to the Balkan Wars and the Great War.

“Bosnian Americans.” Gale in Context: World History, Type=RESULT_LIST&searchResultsType=MultiTab&hitCount=46&searchType=BasicS earchForm¤tPosition=1&docId=GALE%7CCX3273300036&docType=Topic+ove rview&sort=Relevance&contentSegment=ZXAL-VRL&prodId=WHIC&pageNum=1&c ontentSet=GALE%7CCX3273300036&searchId=R14&userGroupName=skok85085&in PS=true. Accessed 4 Feb. 2021. This article highlights the linguistic, cultural, and religious characteristics of Bosnian Americans. It also describes the cultural assimilation of the Bosnian people into American society throughout their waves of immigration.

“Bosnian Muslims.” Gale in Context: U.S. History, Type=RESULT_LIST&searchResultsType=MultiTab&hitCount=21&searchType=BasicS earchForm¤tPosition=1&docId=GALE%7CBT2337000017&docType=Culture+o verview&sort=Relevance&contentSegment=ZXAA-MOD1&prodId=UHIC&pageNum= 1&contentSet=GALE%7CBT2337000017&searchId=R2&userGroupName=skok85085 &inPS=true. Accessed 4 Feb. 2021. This article highlights the settlement and economic status of Bosnian Muslims throughout their history in the United States. It talks about their jobs in subway tunnels and their original ways of social gatherings during the early 1900s.

Crowder, Courtney. “Iowans in Kosovo talk life, work in Balkans.” ProQuest, C841BEPQ/2?accountid=130759. Accessed 6 Dec. 2020. This article speaks about how the land in the Balkans is similar to that in the Midwest, which is a reason why the Midwest is an ideal place for Balkans to find jobs which they have skills in.

“Immigration Quotas.” Gale in Context: U.S. History, Type=RESULT_LIST&searchResultsType=MultiTab&hitCount=327&searchType=Basic SearchForm¤tPosition=1&docId=GALE%7CCX3630800246&docType=Topic+o verview&sort=Relevance&contentSegment=ZXAL-VRL&prodId=UHIC&pageNum=1& contentSet=GALE%7CCX3630800246&searchId=R15&userGroupName=skok85085&i nPS=true. Accessed 4 Feb. 2021. This article gives a summary and background information to every immigration law that was ever put into place by the United States.

Ham, Lesley. “The Tamburitza Tradition: From the Balkans to the American Midwest.” ProQuest Research Library, Western Folklore, D7B71BC841BEPQ/1?accountid=130759. Accessed 6 Dec. 2020. This article illustrates how Balkan immigrants were migrating to industrial cities as a result of the need for unskilled labor in America. They were also bringing with them their culture and methods of entertainment to areas of the Midwest.

Munz, Rainer. “The Migrants.” SIRS Issues Researcher, Earth Times, 0030310?searchid=1607285159&accountid=130759. Accessed 6 Dec. 2020. In this article, it lists statistics of how many immigrants came from which regions/countries, when, and for what reason. It also gives historical context of what happened in Europe and in America during the early 90s when there was an influx of European and Yugoslavian immigrants.

“Unskilled Labor.” Gale in Context: U.S. History, Type=RESULT_LIST&searchResultsType=MultiTab&hitCount=25&searchType=BasicS earchForm¤tPosition=1&docId=GALE%7CCX3446700703&docType=Topic+ove rview&sort=Relevance&contentSegment=ZXAL-VRL&prodId=UHIC&pageNum=1&co ntentSet=GALE%7CCX3446700703&searchId=R6&userGroupName=skok85085&inPS =true. Accessed 4 Feb. 2021. This article mentions how the need for unskilled labor was needed in the North as a result of an increase of infrastructure after the Civil war all the way up to the 1940s. This article also mentions how immigrants were being hired due to the cheap cost of their labor and how many people were not fond of immigrants because they were being accused of “stealing jobs” from white people

Hana Dedić

Niles North Highschool


Student of Pankaj Sharma

Date: March 24, 2021

From the Balkans to the Big City: The History of Bosnian Muslims Immigrating to Chicago, forming the Džemijatul Hajija, and spreading Islam throughout the United States

The formation of the Bill of Rights began in 1791 with the adoption of the First Amendment. Arguably the most important amendment in the entire United States Constitution, the amendment explains that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Throughout America’s history, many people have traveled across continents, oceans, and entire hemispheres to have a chance to live on American soil and take advantage of the privilege to freely practice any religion. A small portion of these millions of people include the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina. A fairly small nation on the eastern end of the Balkan peninsula, Bosnia and Herzegovina is today home to over 3.3 million native inhabitants, 51% of which happen to be Muslim, and a motherland to potentially millions more across the globe. Throughout the course of America’s history, Bosnian Muslims have settled into the large industrial cities of the United States, including Chicago. As a result of economic, religious, and ethnic persecution, Bosnian Muslims began to immigrate to Chicago; despite being limited by immigration quotas, Bosnian Muslims established the Džemijatul Hajija, the first Muslim Organization in Illinois in 1906, which founded the first Sunni Mosque in Chicago in 1957, contributing to the spread of Islam in the U.S.

In the beginning of 1908, many Bosnians began to move out of Bosnia and into Ottoman occupied territory and neighboring Balkan countries as a response to the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which paved the way for an increase of Bosnian migration as political tensions in the Balkan peninsula began to rise; these immigrants will later bring the Islamic tradition to America and eventually establish the Džemijatul Hajrija. Article 25 of the Treaty of Berlin was signed in 1878, which kicked off a period ultimately resulting in the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908, which was formerly under the sovereignty of the Ottoman Empire. The annexation angered many neighboring Balkan countries, such as: Serbia, Greece, Bulgaria, and Montenegro. As an allied power began to form between the Balkan countries and Russia against Austria-Hungary, many Bosnians began to flee from Bosnia to join their fellow Muslim Ottomans in Ottoman occupied territories. An estimated 61-300 thousand Bosnians had migrated from Bosnia to what is present day Turkey. This was the largest migration of Bosnians up until that time. Eventually in 1912, the first of the two Balkan Wars began between the Balkan-Russian allied forces and the remaining Ottoman Empire over territorial disputes (“Balkan Wars”). This posed a threat to the many Bosnians living in the Austro-Hungarian controlled Bosnia and the Ottoman territories, as a result many Bosnians continued to move from Bosnia to neighboring Balkan countries and the United States. Eventually by the end of 1908, approximately 11,500 Bosnian immigrants had already arrived in America and about twenty percent of the Bosnians in the Austro-Hungarian territory had also begun to migrate to America. This was the beginning of the social phenomenon of Bosnians in America (Agić 41). This influx of Bosnian migration as a response to political uprisings will set the stage for many more Bosnian immigrants as a response for future political tensions, such as communism and ethnic cleansing, which will attract Islamic scholars into America. These early immigrants will soon create the first Bosnian Muslim owned businesses and first Islamic organization in Illinois, the Džemijatul Hajrija. These early immigrants were also some of the firsts to practice Islam on American soil, more specifically in Illinois, and will soon begin the assimilation into American culture and the spreading of Islam by intermarrying.

In a response to WW1, new immigration quotas were created by the United States, which limited the amount of Bosnian immigrants during the 1920s to the 1950s and forced the Bosnians already in the United States to settle down in the United States and form connections with each other, which directly led to the creation of the Džemijatul Hajrija. In response to the influx of southern and eastern European immigrants, the US Congress Joint Immigration Commission was formed in 1907, proposed a bill to force immigrants to take a literacy test before entering the United States as a way to stop uneducated and non-white immigrants from entering the United States. The bill was passed in 1917 and limited the amount of Bosnians allowed to enter since the majority of Bosnian immigrants were illiterate, uneducated, and considered non-white due to the Islamic identity. Three years prior to the passing of this bill, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, resulting in the outbreak of the first world war. The combination of these two circumstances made it almost impossible for Bosnians to immigrate to the United States. Three years after the Great War had ended, the Emergency Immigration Act of 1921 was passed, which was the first quota based limit on immigration. The quota limited the amount of new immigrants emitted into the country based on the percentage of immigrants from certain regions that were already in America, especially those countries from where mostly non-protestant and non-white immigrants were coming from; this included a heavy restriction of Bosnian Muslims (“Immigration Quotas”). A majority of Bosnians who were already in America at that time were men; very few Bosnian women and children were in the United States. Since not many Bosnian women were coming to America, many men had resulted in marrying Serbian, Croatian, and American women instead. This not only helped the assimilation of them into American culture, but also helped to spread the religion of Islam and also Bosnian cultural traditions by teaching their wives and children (Agić 85). In order to combat discrimination from American Protestants, Bosnians realized that they needed to start establishing places for communal gather where they can practice their religion amd cultural traditions, as well as needing to find a solution to the discrimination in the job market. These reasons inspired the formation of the first Bosnian owned construction company who founded the Džemijatul Hajrija.

As a result of the demand for unskilled labor, the first wave of Bosnian immigrants started the first fully Bosnian owned construction company in Chicago and created a job market for Bosnians in Chicago, which will later attract more Bosnians into Chicago, as well as resulted in the creation of the Džemijatul Hajrija. In the beginning of the 1900s, most of Chicago was still seeking to be rebuilt as a result of the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. Construction companies were looking for cheap laborers to embark on this project; Bosnian immigrants just so happened to be perfect candidates for these jobs because of the cheap cost of their labor. Most of the Bosnian immigrants at this time were illiterate and uneducated and took up jobs in factories and mines. Arif Dilich was the first Bosnian business man in America; he founded the Arif Dilich Paschen Construction Company which hired dozens of Bosnians to dig the Chicago subway tunnels. Word of the company eventually spread and Bosnians quickly gathered in Chicago to work for Dilich’s company and even came from places such as New York, Pennsylvania, and Montana. This growing community of Bosnians centered in Chicago will later attract a large group of educated Bosnians in the 1960s due to the communist reform in Bosnia. These construction workers eventually unified and founded the Džemijetul Hajrije: Muslimansko Uzajamno Podpomagajuce Društvo in July of 1906, which was the first ever Islamic organization in Illinois (Agić 85-93). This organization will eventually establish chapters across the United States in multiple cities, create the first Sunni mosques in the United States, and attract Muslim scholars to Chicago.

In response to the growing population of Bosnian Muslims in Chicago, the Džemejtul Hajrije, which was the first Islamic organization formed in Illinois, started the spread of Islam in the United States and encouraged Bosnians to come together for Islamic holidays and will later inspire the creation of Bosnian style mosques and Sunday schools. Up until July of 1906, Bosnians in America were practicing Islam mainly within the confines of their own home. This was until the Džemijetul Hajrije: Muslimansko Uzajamno Podpomagajuce Društvo formally established themselves in Chicago, as well as Indiana, Pennsylvania, and even Montana. Although these branches later shut down after the second world war, the Džemijetul Hajrije provided doctors, hospital fees, and burial arrangements for members of the organizations until the late 1930s. The Džemijetul Hajrije bought plots of land at the Memorial Park and Skokie Cemetery and buried the deceased with traditional style Bosnian headstones and conducted funeral services free of charge for its members. The organization was also responsible for organizing spaces for Friday prayers, Eid celebrations, and planning weddings for the Bosnian community (Agić 109-111). The Džemijetul Hajrije created the need for Bosnian Imams in Chicago and later will attract many during the second wave of Bosnian immigrants. Many Bosnians put an emphasis on teaching the religion of Islam to their children, including children of intermarriages. This tradition will continue with the formation of mosques and Sunday schools after the second wave of Bosnian immigrants arrived in the late 1940s.

Secretary of the Džemijatul Hajrija, Mustafa Sarić, created the Sarić Kafana and gave a home and sense of community to the first Bosnian men in America and allowed for the beginning of Bosnian traditions, cultural practices, and Islamic architecture to be integrated into American society. In the early 1920s, Mustafa Sarić, a Bosnian immigrant from 1906, purchased a three-story brick building on 1637 N. Clybourn Avenue in Chicago. The first floor was converted into the first traditional Bosnian style kafana, or cafe, which served coffee, tea, and traditional Bosnian sweets, such as baklava. The top two floors were sleeping rooms where many Bosnian laborers were housed. The kafana was a common place where men gathered to relax, discuss their experiences and lives in Chicago, and many were networking and promoting their job positions and businesses. A few doors down, a similar style kafana was opened by Smajo Kravic. Both kafanas were modeled after the Kira’ethane, a famous kafana in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, a city characterized by its unique dome and arch style of architecture that is iconically seen in Muslim mosques worlwide. As secretary of the Džemijetul Hajija, Sarich organized all official gatherings and social events. Ulfeta Sarić, Mustafa’s wife, was put incharge of the first Bosnian folklore dance club in Chicago. Many Bosnian celebrations and Muslim holidays, such as Eid, were accompanied by a group of young Bosnain women performing the traditional folklore dances of Bosnia (Agić 91). The formation of these traditional kafanas was the first time that traditional Islamic and Bosnian architecture was introduced into the United States, more specifically in Chicago. News to the general public that Bosnians Muslims were living among them in Chicago got out and these kafanas gave them a first hand look at their culture. These kafanas and dance cubs were also the first places in America where Bosnians had a communal place to gather and carry out traditional cultural practices and celebrate Islamic holidays, which helped them to retain their cultural and religious identity in the United States.

In response to the formation of the communist party in Yugoslavia, an influx of Bosnian Muslim scholars immigrated to the United States and as a result, the first official Sunni mosque in Chicago was formed. After defeating the Axis powers in 1945, Yugoslavia became united under the control of Josip Broz Tito and his communist party. The party soon began to run its brutal campaign against anyone who threatened the authority of the party, which resulted in any anti-communist Bosnians soon realized that they needed to flee Bosnia; a majority came to the United States, specifically Chicago. The change to a communist system had a major effect on the wealthy, middle class, and former members of the Axis forces (“The Migrants”). Unlike the unskilled laborers of the first wave, the second wave of immigrants consisted of many businessmen, professors, engineers, and religious leaders. Ćamil Avdić, an accomplished Bosnian Muslim imam and scholar with a degree from the Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt, arrived to Chicago from Bosnia in February 1954. On May 3, 1954, Imam Ćamil and the Džemijatul Hajrija founded a new Muslim organization known as the Muslim Religious and Cultural Home. With the help of donations from his fellow Bosnians, this new organization purchased their first property in Chicago and converted it into the first official Sunni mosque in Chicago in 1957. The mosque was formally renamed and is now known as the Bosnian American Cultural Association, or BACA. Eventually by 1972, BACA had attracted a large number of non-Bosnians as members. In an attempt to keep true to its ethnic roots, BACA created the Islamic Cultural Center, or the ICC, which catered exclusively to the Islamic faith (Agić 103-105). The formation of the communist party in Bosnia was the reason why many educated religious leaders came to Chicago; this ultimately resulted in the creation of the first mosque in Chicago and the spreading of Bosnian owned Islamic organizations. These organizations will play a big role in the assimilation of many Bosnian Muslim refugees in the 1990s, the creation of ICC chapters across North America, and inspiirng the desire to preserve cultural and religious values for Muslims across the United States.

As a result of Muslim persecution in Yugoslavia, the United States saw the largest wave of Bosnian immigrants during the 1990s, which inspired the creation of ICC chapters across the United States that create a place for community and religious education for Muslims across North America. The communist leader of Yugoslavia, Josip Broz Tito, died in 1980 and left the country in a bit of disarray. By 1989, Slobodan Milosević was elected as the leader of Serbia; he was a Serbian nationalist and believed in the ethnic superiority of the Orthodox Serbians. In 1992, many Yugoslavian territories, such as Slovenia, began to break away from the federation and established themselves as sovereign nations. In April 1992, Bosnia had declared its independence, which was a concern for Milosević because about 32 percent of the Bosnian population were ethnic Serbs. In an attempt to save the Serbs from Bosnian authority, Milosević sent the Serbian Armed forces into Bosnia. Up until 1995, they continued to enact violence against innocent Bosnian civilians (“Bosnian Americans”). As soon as word of persecution reached America, BACA responded to this crisis by sending over two million dollars worth of humanitarian aid to Bosnia, which attracted many refugees to the city of Chicago. In 1999, the United States Committee for Refugees estimated that nearly 31,000 Bosnians had resettled into the United States after the period of violence in Yugoslavia. The BACA and the ICC saw a substantial increase in its membership as a result of the refugees and needed to find a solution to its inability to accommodate this major influx of members. Bosnians began to undergo many projects to extend the size of its parking lots and facilities to accommodate everyone. This included opening new chapters of the ICC in cities across the United States including: St.Louis, Phoenix, Atlanta, Jacksonville, Houston, and even Vancouver (Agić 111-115). Today, these chapters have grown to each shelter one, or two mosques, and continue to provide a home and an influence for Muslims across the continent of North America. A majority of these mosques provide a Sunday school service where both Islam and foreign language are taught to young children, which continues to pass religious practices and traditions along generations.

Muslims across the world have been subject to persecution and controversy for centuries and prejudice against Islam has gotten worse over recent years. Terrorism and Islamic extremism have been a topic of debate across the political world and are a key factor in contributing to the growing disdain for Muslims. Understanding how and why Muslim organizations and Islam came to a formal establishment in the United States plays a vital role in both preserving religious liberties, and combating violence within and against the Muslim community. As a group, Muslims account for approximately 1.5% of the United States population, and are projected to grow up to 2.1% in 2050. Due to their growing population, awareness and representation are called for on a national level, which has inspired the rise of Muslim politicians, such as Ilhan Omar. American Muslims add to the diversity of color, values, and thought in “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”